Sunday, October 1, 2017

Expressing Emotions

Recently, Alex’s behavioral therapist has been working with him on understanding and expressing his emotions appropriately. They use a system of colors to identify what he is feeling: green for calm and content, yellow for nervous, and red for frantic. This stoplight system seems to appeal to Alex as they discuss not only what might cause him to feel these different emotions but also how to cope when he enters the yellow and red zones.

For example, Alex indicates that he feels calm when he reads a book or watches television, but he becomes anxious if he’s worried about the stock market or thinks about losing money at the casino. (He’s only been to a casino twice and won money both times, but I guess this is a concern for him.) To ease his anxiety, his therapist has suggested that Alex should do things he enjoys and finds calming: reading books, watching television, and listening to music. When he becomes frantic, such as when he can’t find something, she recommends that he asks for help or talks to Ed or me to calm down.

Clearly, these strategies are working well as we have seen in the past week with situations that could have sent Alex into meltdown mode. With one of his medications reduced significantly and another taken away completely this summer because he has done so well managing anxiety, he has heightened sensory awareness. We notice him covering his ears for loud sounds, which he does not usually do, and his appetite has been off, probably due to increased sensitivity to tastes, smells, and textures. Since these medications were to ease his anxiety, we have closely monitored his emotions to make sure he would not be overwhelmed too much by the changes in his brain chemistry.

Fortunately, he has adapted quite well to the taking away of some anxiety medications. However, we have noticed that he does seem to have a wider range of emotions, which is to be expected and celebrated. Certainly, we did not want him to have his emotions flattened more than necessary. With the coping skills he has learned in behavioral therapy, he has gained control of his anxiety and learned to act appropriately, even when he’s not happy with a situation. However, sometimes these feelings take him a bit by surprise, even when he knows he’s entering the yellow or red zone.

On Monday evening, Ed and I had several errands to run, and Alex was happy to go along for the ride. Even though he had no particular interest in looking at picture framing hardware, he pleasantly accompanied us to five different stores, especially since he knew we were taking him to get an Italian ice afterward. At the last store, however, he was reaching his limit of patience. Somehow Ed had managed to get in the slowest check out lane, and I could see Alex’s patience being tested. I suggested that Alex and I wait near the doors so that we weren’t crowded in line. Still in the yellow zone, he was chatting with me, trying to remain calm but telling me he was worried, so I knew we needed to try something different before the red zone appeared. We walked back to the line where Ed was still waiting, and I took the items to the self-check lane while Ed and Alex went to the car to wait for me. Simply changing setting and knowing that he was about to receive his reward for patience––the Italian ice––allowed Alex to calm down and keep his anxiety from escalating.

On Thursday afternoon, in preparing for the arrival of Alex’s music therapist, I picked up one of Alex’s red composition notebooks from the floor and put it on the coffee table in another room to get it out of the way. A little later, I saw Alex walking from room to room, clearly searching for something. When I asked him if I could help him, he curtly told me no and continued looking for his lost possession. A few minutes later, I heard him yell downstairs, “You’re [meaning I’m] upset!” When I came to see what was wrong, he explained that he was looking for his red notebook, the one I had put away earlier. After reassuring him that I knew where it was, he was relieved, and I reminded him that he can always ask me for help if he needs it. On the other hand, I was proud of him for trying to find the notebook independently. Most of all, I was proud of him for verbalizing his feelings of frustration yet behaving appropriately.

Yesterday, we took him to a college football game, something he’d been eagerly anticipating all week. Because it was Homecoming Weekend, the stands were packed with people, much more crowded than usual. In addition, the speakers were blaring loud obnoxious rap music that seemed to bother Alex because he covered his ears several times. The final straw, however, was that the scoreboard was broken, and Alex relies upon those numbers, especially the game clock to keep track of the action. We had told him that we could leave at any time, but he managed to get through the first quarter. At the end of that quarter, I could see his anxiety emerging from the sensory overload. When I asked him if he wanted to stay or leave, he told me he wanted to leave but was concerned if that was okay. We assured him that he didn’t have to stay, and he seemed pleased we understood that he was overwhelmed by all the people, noise, and confusion. Again, we were proud of him for communicating what he needed to feel better without allowing himself to get too upset.

While it would be nice if every day were filled with only peaceful and pleasant things, we know that’s not realistic. As Alex experiences various situations and emotions, he will need to learn to cope with waiting, frustration, and sensory overload. Thankfully, he is adapting to these feelings and learning to express his concerns and needs so that we can help him find solutions to problems until he is able to navigate them on his own. Although we would wish for a life of only green times for Alex, we are pleased that he is figuring out how to cope with those yellow and red times that could overwhelm him by finding appropriate ways to deal with them. As always, we are grateful to God for all the progress Alex is making and for being able to witness just how far he has come.

“For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3:17

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